Sunday, 19 October 2008


SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A LIFE BEYOND POLIO is Gary Presley's account of his life after contracting polio in 1959, when he was a boy of but 17 years. Gary had gone along for the series of injections to prevent polio (many of us had those, or the vaccine on the sugar lump), and a week or so following the final jab, Gary collapsed. He has not been able to walk, and has had to rely on assistance with his breathing, since that time. Over the past 49 years, Gary has rolled along on seven wheelchairs, and presently enjoys the company of Little Red.

Gary Presley worked in insurance sales, and also in commercial radio. He is pretty much self-educated, and did a superb job with it. He is a son, a brother and a husband and father.

Gary has become a writer, and that is how I came to know him. Gary is an administrator of the Internet Writing Workshop. He is a published essayist. With this book release, he is becoming something of a media personality and I had the distinct pleasure of listening to him, over the Internet, speaking on the radio in Iowa. They've got him signing books as well: events, they call them.

In this quite easy to read, if difficult to live, history, Gary Presley uses words that make some of us a little uncomfortable: disabled, handicapped, invalid (and what a word that is, suggesting someone is not "valid"), paralysed, isolated, frightened. Another troubling word that pops up: normalcy. One might think: "Well, that's all about life in seven wheelchairs." Listen: Who among us cannot apply these words, even the terrifying "normalcy", to his or her life?

This is why I particularly enjoyed and benefitted from Gary Presley's account: There are Riding Lessons in Seven Wheelchairs for the likes of me.

It was interesting, and pleasing, to find that Presley's style is, at first, simple, untroubled (and untroubling), and has almost the naivete of a youth about it. The descriptions of falling to the earth, of being slotted into an iron lung, of being fitted for breathing apparatuses, at the age of 17, are fresh. There is no roughness of the man of 65 in it. As the autobiography, for that is what this must be in many ways, progresses, the style and content matures. When Gary finds love the writing really is a serious read, you linger over every line, liking it all so much. You feel he has grown, the book itself, the medium, has been a transport.

The book: Mine has 226 pages, I read it in two days at a leisurely pace. It is printed on pleasant paper, and the University of Iowa Press that published it is committed to preserving natural resources, and that's all worth noting. The book weighs about 420g, so you can figure out how much postage you'll need to send a copy to a friend or family member this coming holiday gifting season, and it shouldn't be onerous. Of course, can do that for you.

Finally, it seems to me that more than a few young people in their mid- to late-teens, say aged 17, could find this book a bit of a primer for life. Parents: Leave a copy on your son's bed.

When I was in my early twenties, I read, for the first time, The Rack by A.E. Ellis, and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Both novels, of course, and dealing with something that even 40 years ago we didn't trouble ourselves over much (tuberculosis). In my case, it was the musings of the characters, the troubled love lives, the frustrations, the breathing lessons, the psychologies, the philosophies, that kept me reading (and eventually re-reading) The Rack and The Magic Mountain.

I don't know whether people can be arsed to read those particular books now, but SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A Life Beyond Polio by Gary Presley deals with things that "other people get, not me" in our lifetime. It's an important book, makes you take stock, look at your feet and the door, and it might give you the push to get a move on.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Revolution Revisited

Protestors. Grosvenor Square, London. 17 March, 1968

This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a
foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures,
shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions,
revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of
memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and
delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the
gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am
thankful for it.
William Shakespeare (Love's Labour's Lost, Act IV, Scene II)

I HAVE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS. Do people who work the night shift ever suffer from sleepless days? Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on my mood, these hours awake when others sleep are not so regular, so frequent, as to render me useless most of the time. Four or five times a week I can get safely to the minimart for milk, to the greengrocer for broccoli, and to Roland's Butchers for a bit of fresh lamb's liver for Cailean, and not be standing out on the street wondering whether it is Thursday or Norway. When I am truly knackered in the daytime, I try not to stray past the pages of the book I'm reading. Cups of tea and a blanket over my legs on the sofa, and the dog kipping on his back alongside me.

When I become the vampire, the creature of the night, I usually have fallen asleep in the early evening, as early as tea-time, and wakened by nine o'clock. From that hour my mind races, I often pace the floor, and have to fight the temptation to leave the flat and go walking in the mists that this seaside village hides in every night. Fortunately for me, Cailean is not much of a werewolf, and he doesn't often care to go outside after dark, except for pee breaks in the courtyard, and snappy ones at that.

I did actually take him for one late night walk recently in the moonlight, near the River Coquet, and very nearly had to carry him home: hooting owls, barking dogs, splashes in the water, rather a lot of bunnies, and the clanking of cables on the aluminium masts of the sailboats. Oh, I think Cailean would have stayed by the river, but I was scared shitless and couldn't get home through the heaped autumn leaves fast enough. We were like two protons in the Large Hadron Collider!

Back at home. I find I can watch the television comfortably until midnight, and can push on for another hour if there's a good film showing. I rather like weird foreign films with subtitles; T-rated films: transvestites, transsexuals, tortured priests, twinks, trolls, tits, theatrics, twists in the plot, therapy, trench-coats. Well, anything by Pedro Almodóvar.

When I've had enough of the telly, I read for a while. Cailean, for many hours by this time, has been asleep under several blankets with all his toys. Approaching two-thirty in the morning, bladders must be relieved, mine first. Then out into the cold with the pup. The security light blazes and any inclination to sleep is blasted right out of me. We run back inside, switching off any lights, stand-by switches and the heater if it has been on. Cailean vanishes under the covers with "Snakey", a favourite stuffed toy that is a good deal bigger than he is. I pull the blankets up, face the ceiling, and start thinking.

Some years ago, I wrote a newspaper column that tended to be about days gone by, which were sometimes the good old days of my youth, sometimes about the travel I'd managed when my health and finances permitted, about people that I'd met, books I'd read, things that influenced me, the shitty experiences of childhood, conversions and diversions. My therapist thought I was getting all the past out of my system. I kept a journal for over twenty-five years, scrapbooks as well, and photo albums. Everything was on paper, somehow. As we carry the past along with us, perceiving time as we do in these dimensions, I hardly expected to get everything out of my system!

Three years ago I took all my journals to an industrial incinerator plant, along with my scrapbooks. So much for what I did in 1980; so much for the newspaper clipping of my mother's funeral notice; so much for important telephone numbers; so much for jokes that were so funny when I heard them that they had to be written down; so much for my thoughts on 11 September, 2001; so much for theatre tickets, and an address blotchy on a beer-mat, and a coin I picked up that I did not recognise. Into the fire.

I left my photo albums (and I'd been the keeper of the family photographs among my siblings), my personal papers, my newspaper columns, my reference books and notes, everything that I'd written, in an old cargo container in a damp field in Bermuda. When I turned my back on it, I knew that I'd not pay the storage fees after the first six months, and I didn't, and that was three years ago. Those things have gone. Apparently, as of three years ago, I'd pretty much dumped the baggage of my past, mentally, and the physical followed.

Back in England, I found I was unable, couldn't be arsed, to write about schooldays and fishing off the rocks and climbing Mount Pisgah on Beaver Island, though I was vaguely conscious of those times. Instead of panoramic views of driving through the Grand Tetons that just go on and on, I have a little, the smallest, Post-it Note reading "Saw the Tetons". Enough seen, enough said.

I'm tending to write about the moment, or at least last night or a day or two ago. I've taken up photography, I see something interesting, camera always at the ready, I get my snapshot, and I write about it. Or delete it. I don't save it.

And, in the night, in the last few hours before sunrise, my mind races. Something I saw the day before. I have a tiny torch, the sort that one might attach to a key ring, and I reach for it, my biro pen, and a jotter pad (they are scattered all around the flat), and I write down my great thoughts. Light out. Another thought. Light on. And through the night. Light off. Light on.

Sometimes I sit up completely and my thoughts become visual. In the room, awkwardly manoeuvring around the clutter, walk people and animals, sometimes flags flutter, things blow across the carpet which has become a street. There is no sound, unless I make it, and I don't want to disturb Cailean by talking to short-term memories.

Last night, I watched water cascading downwards through what should have been the carpeted floor, only it had become a rough path down a mountain, and pine trees hovered behind the furniture. It was quite remarkable; I made a note of it on my jotter pad. Had there been full sound, I imagine I might have been frightened.

Cailean only needs to pee once in the night, but I must go two or three times, so I got up from the sofa-bed and walked out of the woods, down the hall to the bathroom. When I came back, the room was a room again. I decided to make a large mug of coffee, which I do using skimmed milk rather than water. Four minutes and ten seconds in the microwave does it exactly. And I sit in the dark and drink the coffee and listen to music playing in my head. Coffee does that to me. Indie and Brit Pop.

Coffee also makes me sleepy at five in the morning. This morning, I wrote a few more notes and then rolled over in the bed, felt Cailean curl up behind my knees, closed my eyes, and then it was eight-thirty. Cailean was playing with Snakey on top of the blankets; the room was so bright that I knew it was a sunny day outside.

I do my house-cleaning chores on Friday, and I made beef stew from scratch, which takes two hours, not including the suet dumplings. So, I've done all that, it's Friday evening.

Just now, I had a look at my jotter pad. It reads, in part: "Revolution revisited before 2008 has passed!"

I must tell you my mind is not so far gone that I cannot figure the line out. You see, 1968, exactly 40 years ago, was quite the year for social unrest and upheaval, assassinations, invasions, riots and beatings and strikes.

The Rolling Stones sang their take on it, their anthem, Street Fighting Man, which is a shit song as far as music goes, but it included the lyric: "Summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy..." which is memorable to an old Stones fan such as myself.

John Lennon wrote one of my very favourite Beatles' songs, Revolution, which includes the lines:

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out

On 17 March, 1968, which was a Sunday, I was in London with a dear friend of mine, who reads this blog from time to time, he's still dear, and we saw crowds in the streets heading for the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square to protest against the Vietnam War. The riot that followed kicked off the revolution season that year.

I was into all that Peace and Love business back in 1968. However, I am looking for some evolution, some revolution, in 2008. In international finance, in coming to grips with hunger and pollution and terrorism, in international political relations. I am hoping that a revolution of common sense over prejudice will see Barack Obama become President of the United States of America. The election of John F. Kennedy back in 1960 broke the evil spell over Roman Catholicism, and I imagine only those hillbillies and crackers in the USA give a hoot about the Catholic influence now. Can Barack Obama, even if he is only half a man of black African blood, if elected, contribute hugely to a decline in institutionalised racism and prejudice? I think so. I hope so.

I'm afraid, for me, Obama's opponent, John McCain, is the hero from the Vietnam War. Can a war that should never have been (and that was ultimately lost) truly have great heroes? I'm not sure that suffering, which McCain certainly had his share of, can be equated with heroism. Many would disagree with me across the Atlantic.

Struggles against suffering, however, can be heroic at times.

I say I want a revolution. I do!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Something You Mustn't Do

When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
Untimely storms make men expect a dearth.
William Shakespeare (Richard III. Act II, Scene III)

OH! FOR FUCK'S SAKE! My first thought—in fact, I said the words out loud—yesterday morning when I opened the kitchen door in the now-dark morning after the alarm went off to allow Cailean to relieve his bladder in the courtyard.

This actually started in earnest on 6 September, 2008, a Saturday, four weekends ago.

There had even been a hint the weekend before that: Rain that refused to ease up, some flooding in the courtyard, six inches of water outside the kitchen door. The hint was a gift: I went and bought caustic soda, signing the poison register at the hardware store. I then scraped old leaves, clumps of moss, bits of gravel and other detritus from the drains, and poured the lye into them, and replaced the grates. A half-hour later, I poured a good deal of hellishly-hot water down as a chaser. The obnoxious effluvium indicated that something serious was going on. The serial killers one reads about, flushing the dissolving bits of their victims' bodies down their pipes, cannot have a pleasant time of it. But this was just a gift, unexpected, but not unusual, this heavier rain and rising water.

We had a bit of a spring in 2008. There came a day when I noticed a dead rat that had been frozen solid on the pavement just down the hill from me, which had not moved or been moved all winter, had thawed. It was worth celebrating after a cold and most miserable season. The rat's corpse vanished a day later, a meal fresh from the freezer we call Amble for a cat, or perhaps a fox. Soon after, the householder of a delightful bungalow nearby totted his half-dozen plastic sheep out of storage and set them up on his lawn. I wondered if plastic sheep should graze on Astroturf.

That was spring. It turned out to be summer too. The balmy months following the Solstice never really panned out. I did not use my central heating in July and August, but I slept under two blankets every night. We had, perhaps, five sunny days, and I wore my shorts and stretched out for long, long afternoons on my lounge chair and read. I potted plants and had some success with them. However, I only went to the beach twice. In 2006 I had spent an entire month on the beach, baking! I never broke a sweat in the summer of 2008.

And we had record rain in August this year. About twice the monthly average in most places, more in some. More in my garden, I'm thinking. The earth soaked it up where there was earth to do that. I live on a hilltop, my courtyard is concrete, I'm surrounded by paved roads up here, you cannot dig at all, much less expect to plant something in England's fresh soil. Down the hill there are farms between Amble and the next village of Warkworth. The fields dedicated to crops sucked up the moisture, day after day, and the pastures did the same as the sheep and cows squished about.

On 6 September, the Saturday, I was to go to an indoor rock concert in the evening, in Alnwick, with some friends. Trevor and his wife were driving up from Tyneside, which must be forty miles south of Amble, and were to collect me at six-thirty. I was very much looking forward to all of this. The musical group were doing a tribute to The Beatles and were said to be quite excellent at it.

That Saturday began with the usual morning drizzle. The television indicated that bad weather was headed for the northeast of England. We might need our brollies, no mention of wellies, or water-wings, or life-boats and rescue helicopters. I settled down with a book after watching my favourite cookery shows, and, from time to time, ran outside with Cailean, using the umbrella to protect us. I noticed that the drains I had scoured a few days before were working perfectly.

By lunch time, the rain was getting so heavy that Cailean's long walk was out of the question and, umbrella or not, the brief trips past the kitchen door had the poor boy doing the dog-paddle as the water gushed toward the outflows. He was not happy. I was not happy. The concert was to be held at the Alnwick Playhouse, but one must park some distance away in one of the Duke of Northumberland's lots and walk, with no shelter or overhang, to the theatre. That's a bother, especially if about ten people are trying to meet and then keep together as a group.

At four o'clock, the rain was getting serious. I'm on that hilltop, but from inside the flat, thanks to a garden wall, I cannot see down the hill to lower ground. I look across the rooftops to Warkworth Castle. On those occasions when the rain is not so intense that the visibility dwindles to a matter of yards, that is. I could only see the wall at the end of the garden, and that was hardly clear. Torrents of rain were running down the street on the other side of the flat, headed for pastures and chicken coops.

There's a stream, with the unpleasant name The Gut, below the flat that flows into Amble Harbour. It is normally a trickle of water, perhaps a foot deep and six feet wide. This trickle originates somewhere to the west of town, it would be run-off from fields I expect. It is affected by the water in the harbour and rises a foot or so during unusually high tides. I could not see The Gut that day, but I saw it the next. It had become a burn. The bunnies and moles and voles that live in burrows along the waterway must have had quite the experience. And I could not tell what was going on with the River Coquet a few hundred yards north of that, even a day later. I couldn't get near it a day later.

Trevor telephoned at five o'clock. He'd called the highway police to ask the best way to get to Amble bearing in mind that the rain was pretty heavy and wasn't letting up. A two word reply: By boat!

Between the River Tyne and our area the rivers were raging and overflowing, the town of Morpeth had 1,000 homes flooded, bridges were being washed away, trees uprooted, fields flooded, roads eroded and there were landslips. A new lake some six miles long by three miles wide had formed somewhere. All that wet earth from the summer of record rain had been unable to take a drop more.

The concert wasn't going to happen. In fact, the band was trapped somewhere south of us as well, and Alnwick was cut off from the north and west. I watched television reports on the flooding at Morpeth, 15 miles south of Amble: Helicopters, boats, firemen and rescue crews, little old ladies being carried feet first from their flooded homes, rising water, rising water, rain, rain, rain.

The next day, we were back to mere drizzle. And that's when I found out that the River Coquet had flooded. Rothbury had been badly damaged, Warkworth as well. The water roaring down the Coquet into Amble Harbour had undermined the town's docks by twenty feet, causing parts of the docks to fall into the harbour. Boats had been washed off the riverbanks, and from their moorings, sinking or being carried into the North Sea. The fields between Amble and Warkworth were under water. I believe the sheep that graze below my flat survived, but 800 in the district drowned. And mud. So much mud. Mud had washed up over the river's banks. Sand dunes had been shifted in the Estuary. The Coquet was choked with trees, logs and rubbish. That was the end of a not-so-glorious summer.

The rest of September surprised us. Chilly weather, but some sunny days. I'd discovered a spot near the river where, behind a windbreak of pine trees, I could lie out on the grass with Cailean and enjoy the sun on my face, at least. Not warm enough to bare the arms and legs. But the light from the sun, scooting lower across the sky every day, was very nice. And my patch of grass, with red berries and rosehips on the trees and in the hedgerows, bunnies nosing about (Cailean too content to fuss over them), and interesting birds—an influx of swans, cormorants and gulls after the storm—made for hours of recharging my mental batteries after all the gloom. It was just seven dwarves short of a Disney movie set.

I also made apple crumble with windfalls. I enjoy peeling and cutting things up, and apples are a nice change from carrots and tatties. Then I moved on to banana bread. The leaves started to fall on their long journey to oblivion, just like D.H. Lawrence's apples. No gorgeous colours yet, this year. Last year was stunning, once in a lifetime. I took a train trip to the Lake District, over the Pennines, in 2007, and I can (and must, apparently) revisit that memory through my own latter days. The folks at the house near me with the plastic sheep folded up the flock and put them in the garage for the winter.

The real rams have been covering the ewes. Cailean's grandmother, Holly, had puppies. I have flowering azaleas and cyclamen on my window ledges indoors, and I'm finding large spiders in the house. Cailean is sleeping under three blankets with me, behind my knees, like my Aleks used to. A dachshund thing. Life goes on.

Then, yesterday morning, I opened the back door at about seven-fifteen, and looked out into the darkness. Cailean stood behind me, and refused to step over the stoop. The rain was tipping down, the wind was truly howling, it was bitterly cold, not much above freezing it turned out. I was standing in my shorts and t-shirt and wearing slippers. Because one has to, I picked the dog up and walked a few paces into the storm and set him down. He assumed the position immediately, peed, and ran for the door, and I followed and switched on the central heating.

Hours later, in winter clothes and hat and coat, I took Cailean for a brief walkabout. He pushed through piles of leaves while we dodged around other piles of dog excrement that hurried dog-walkers had not paused to pick up, and we returned with Cailean muddied and soaked. Into the bathtub with him, which he loves. For fuck's sake, as the little children say, winter was upon us.

Until this morning. Today: Not a cloud in the sky. Warkworth Castle was brilliant in the sunrise. The light twinkling in Amble Harbour and on the Coquet. Birds everywhere, pecking about and preening their feathers. And it is not too chilly, jacket weather, but no need for a hat, scarf and coat. Cailean lay on the concrete briefly, rolled on his back and warmed his bits. I did laundry and put it out on the lines and it is drying nicely. People have been walking past the flat on the street side, headed for the outdoor market, some wearing dark glasses. There are young men having beers in the garden of The Wellwood Arms across from me, all in shirt sleeves.

There's a saying here that I hear a good deal, but do not use myself. It is something one offers when all hell is breaking loose: "Still, one mustn't complain!"

Given today, after yesterday, one mustn't complain.